Fenland farmers to be hit financially by government plans to reduce peat usage

Farmers in the Fens, an area responsible for around 80 per cent of the UK's veg, could struggle to be profitable.

Peat bans will cost farmers in Cambridgeshire, as the government moves to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions surrounding peat compost and peatland farming.


Fenland farmers rely on imported peat - an organic matter used in some compost - to grow vegetables and salad greens, but the government has announced plans to make recommendations for sustainable farming to preserve the peatlands, potentially costing farmers.


It has also announced a consultation to ban the sale of peat to amateur gardeners as part of a long-term plan to reduce the country’s peat usage announced in the England Peat Action Plan.


The government will also fund the restoration of 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025, with the potential for more in the future.


The UK’s peatlands, a type of wetland ecosystem, store three times as much carbon as its forests.


They cover only three per cent of the world’s land surface but hold a quarter of the global soil carbon, but most have been degraded to extract peat for compost or for farming, worsening climate change.


The big news for Fenland farmers regarding the government’s plans for peat is adapting farming practices to minimise emissions and soil loss so the county does not see the “continued disappearance” of what is left of peat soils, said Rob Wise, environmental advisor for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) East Anglia.


In Cambridgeshire, the Fenland has some peatland areas, but unlike other parts of the country, Fen farmers do not extract peat to export for commercial usage.

The soil’s natural high peat content makes the Fens highly productive when it comes to vegetable and salad production, making it some of the most valuable farmland in the UK.

They farm crops in the soil, which drains water from the soil which means it dries out and blows away.


The main impact of the changes on the area - which produces around 80 per cent of the UK’s vegetables and salad greens - is the alternative farming methods necessary that could be costly.


The increased costs are unlikely to be passed onto consumers as supermarkets will try to remain competitive, but many farmers could struggle with profitability.


Farmers will have to wait until the government’s Lowland Agricultural Peat Task Force develops recommendations to extend the lifespan of these areas.


Some of the options could be to change animal grazing regimes or wet farming, whereby new crops that thrive in very wet and saturated soil are planted, which stops the soil from drying out.


Farmers could use cover crops to ensure the land is not left bare over winter.


When the soil dries and is left bare, it can lead to ‘Fen blows’, a phenomenon similar to a dust storm whereby the wind blows away the dried topsoil, reducing the amount of remaining available soil.


The Wildlife Trust Bedfordshire Cambridgeshire Northamptonshire is trialling wet farming techniques in the Fens as part of a three-year project ending 2022.


“Pretty much any head of celery or lettuce that is British grown in the supermarkets is going to have come out of the Cambridgeshire Fens,” said Mr Wise, of the NFU, meaning any changes to farming practices in the Fens will have implications for the UK as a whole.


He added: “The changes come with cost implications because if you move to some of the more regenerative agriculture techniques, for example making sure you’ve got green cover on the field all year round, it increases your costs but doesn’t necessarily result in an increase in yield, so your overall farm productivity and profitability goes down.


“Part of the discussion is the extent to which farmers can absorb their costs when supermarkets aren’t going to pay.”


He added: “What we need to ensure is if the government is going to help subsidise the cost of changing farm practices, the payments need to adequately reflect the loss in profitability.”


Mr Wise added that there could be a conversation with supermarkets about reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions by funding changing farming practices.


However, he said it was unlikely that consumer prices would have to go up, since competition between brands is fierce and costs would be kept low.


Source: Cambridgeshire Live